Sunday, August 1, 2021

August 1844

On this day in 1844, the 24-year old future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, was received into the Catholic Church at New York's original Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The next day he made his first confession, and subsequently his first Communion. On May 18, 1845, he and his brother George, who had followed Isaac into the Church, were both confirmed, at which time Hecker added the name Thomas. Then exactly one year after his reception into the Church, he was on his way to Europe to join the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (The Redemptorists).

Already in 1843, one week after attending Easter Mass in a Roman Catholic Church, Hecker had written in his diary: "The Catholic Church alone seems to satisfy my wants … my soul is catholic and that faith answers responds to my soul in its religious aspirations and its longings. I have not wished to make myself catholic but it answers to the wants of my soul. It is so rich full."
Still, for another year, he continued his inner exploration and comparative study of different churches. He studied the Catechism of the Council of Trent (The Roman Catechism) and was especially impressed by Article IX on the doctrine of the communion of saints. Writing in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, one year before his death, he recalled: its impact on him: "When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented. … The body made alive by such truths ought to be of divine life and its origin traceable to a divine establishment: it ought to be the true church. The certainty of the distinctively Catholic doctrine of the union of God and men made the institution of the church by Christ exceedingly probable."                                                                                                 
Like Christian history’s most famous seeker, Saint Augustine, Hecker had examined the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, paying intense attention to his own inner spiritual sensibility, before finally finding a permanent home in the Roman Catholic Church. In our contemporary idiom, Hecker was “spiritual but not religious” for much of the first 25 years of his life. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, eloquently exemplifies the perennially human appeal of such a spiritual search and certainly speaks to the spiritual longings of some in our own (admittedly more secular) society today. What was significant about Hecker’s “spiritual but not religious” period, however, was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. His conversion was complete, and his spirituality was generously and determinedly evangelizing – expressing a prayerful, lifelong, intimate dedication to and cooperation with God’s design for human beings.


Hecker’s enthusiasm for his new faith and his commitment to the Church would permeate all his subsequent activities – from his initial conversion experience as recorded in his Diary, through his active ministry as a priest and missionary preacher, to his final mature exposition in his last book, The Church and the AgeHecker never composed a definitive formulation of his spiritual teaching, as Saint Ignatius, for example, so clearly did in his Spiritual Exercises. But, by means of his preaching, lecturing, and writing he did communicate his insights into God's grand design and the role of free human beings within God's design.

Fundamental to all this was his recognition of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God acting to call him out of himself and into the Church - his conscious recognition of God’s providential presence and providential action in his life and his personal submission to the presence and providential action of the Holy Spirit.

Hecker’s immediate practical task as a new Catholic in 1844 was to discern his vocation within the Church, how to live this new experience not just for himself but for others. In 1845, Hecker met two other new Catholics, who were planning to travel to Europe to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium, and he decided to join them. 
In a letter to Brownson on July 23, 1845, Hecker had expressed “the need of being under stronger Catholic influences than are so far as my experience goes, in this country.” Writing again around the time when he received his Redemptorist habit in September, he said, "The conditions here are perfect, and all that can hinder me from gaining the end for which God gave me being is a non-compliance on my part. The spirit of the Church with such conditions must produce a truly Catholic life."
Despite difficulties with his studies, what he himself later described as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors, Hecker found fulfillment in Redemptorist religious routine and in his reading of Catholic spiritual writers. In the Ignatian spirituality of, for example, Louis Lallement (1578-1635), he found confirmed his sense of the presence of God in his daily life. “I was one day looking over the books in the library and I came across Lallemant’s Spiritual Doctrine. Getting leave to read it, I was overjoyed to find it a full statement of the principles by which I had been interiorly guided.” His Novice Master, Hecker recalled, “appeared to recognize the hand of God in my direction in a special manner, conceived a great esteem, and placed an unusual confidence in me, and allowed me, without asking it, though greatly desired, daily communion.”

On October 16, 1846, the day he took his Redemptorist vows, Hecker wrote to Bishop McCloskey: "I have passed my novitiate without any doubt or temptations against my vocation as a religious, and during this time our Lord has blessed me with much and many graces. … Perhaps it is not simply for the salvation and sanctification of my soul that our Blessed Lord has bestowed upon me so many favors over my friends and fellow countrymen, and should it be His will, it would be my greatest delight to be with His grace and in His time, an aid to you, Rt. Rev. Father, in converting our country to the Holy Church of our Lord and the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
His academic difficulties continued to present a problem: “all ability to pursue my studies had altogether departed.” Convinced, nonetheless, that he had a vocation to labor for the conversion of his non-Catholic fellow countrymen, he successfully persuaded his superiors that, if left to study at his own pace, he could yet “acquire sufficient knowledge to be ordained a priest.” (Years later, Hecker associated his experience with that of Saint John Vianney, whose incapacity for study he ascribed to “the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit.” He interpreted his own academic troubles in terms of “the relation between infused knowledge and acquired knowledge; how much one’s education should be by prayer and how much by study; the relation between the Holy Ghost and professors.”) His difficulties as a student had helped him to discern that his own sanctification and whatever efforts he might in time expend for the salvation of his fellow-Americans would themselves be products of God’s grace, according to the means God gave him. Hence his writings were a product more of his experience and reflection than of his study and research.

Thus, after Novitiate in Belgium and the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he went to England to finish his formation and was ordained a priest on October 23, 1849.  After a brief ministry as a priest in London, in 1851 Hecker returned to the United States as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band, which included Clarence Walworth and two other American ex-Protestants, Augustine Hewit and Francis Baker, both of whom would collaborate with him in the founding of the Paulist Fathers in 1858. 

Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die.” 

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